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February 2016---Ergot

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Claviceps purpurea

 Family: Asconmycetes

 Names: rye ergot, secale cornutum

 Description: The blue to dark-purple, straight or slightly bent, sausage-shaped bodies called ergot occur mainly in the ears of rye and are 1 ½ inches long and 3-4mm wide.  They appear between the glumes in place of normal grains and, like them, have white seeds inside.  These ergot ‘grains’ are .1-1.5 inches long, more or less cylindrical, often fissured.  Ergot is not a product of the cereal plant but the permanent form (sclerotium) of a fungus.  Ergot is found mostly in rye but it sometimes occurs on wheat and barley ears as well as on some wild grasses

 Cultivation:  Ergot of rye is found wherever rye is cultivated and especially in regions where seed control is lax.  It is more frequent in wet years than in dry years and is found especially on the edges of rye fields.  Collection is at the time of harvest of the mature ears and from the threshed grain.  Dried at 86-113F.  Cultivation is possible by artificial injection, of the closed ear of rye with a suspension in water of ergot spores.  It is desirable to carry out such cultivation in areas where no other rye is being grown.  The sclerotia that have grown on the rye then dropped off are collected during dry weather and dried in a little warmth. They have a musty smell and an insipid offensive taste.  Do this in early summer to early autumn or fall

 History: Ergot was formerly assumed to be a misshapen grain and was ground down.  In 1782 Johann Taube recognized its toxicity as the cause of “itching sickness” or St. Anthony’s Fire.  The biology of the ergot fungus was revealed by Tulasne in 1852.  The name Ergot is derived from the old French word argot (a cock’s spur), a reference to the appearance of the fungus.       During the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of people in Europe were afflicted with ergotism, a malady characterized by gangrenous extremities, convulsions, madness and death. They ate rye bread infested with ergot fungus containing several peptide alkaloids of the ergotamine group (including ergotamine, ergosine and ergocristine) that affect blood vessels. Since they are potent vasoconstrictors, these alkaloids can cause gangrene if ingested in sufficient dosages. Known as "St. Anthony's Fire," ergotism was a dreaded disease in Europe. Between 990 and 1129, more than 50,000 people died of this disease in France. The disease became so devastating that in 1093 in southern France the people formed an order to take care of the afflicted, and they chose St. Anthony as their patron saint. One of the symptoms of the disease was an intense burning sensation, hence the name St. Anthony's Fire. It wasn't until 1597 (500 years after the first epidemic of ergotism) that physicians finally associated this horrendous disease with the ergot on rye. Another form of ergot poisoning involves severe hallucinations and madness, caused by pschoactive alkaloids in the sclerotia.

 Constituents:  Contains more than a dozen potent alkaloids, most of them derivatives of lysergic acid, among them ergometrine, ergocitrine, ergocornine, ergotamine and ergotoxin.  Ergometrine is the most important of these substances.  It is extracted and used in pharmaceutical preparations principally to assist women in childbirth and in the treatment of migraine.  Ergotamine is also used to treat migraine. Other ingredients are gipments and histamine. Due to the variable alkaloid content, between 0.025 and 0.2 per cent, drug extracts are not longer used. Nowadays only industrially isolated alkaloids are used in prepared medicines used in obstetrics, for migraines and also in various compound medicines.

 Medicinal Uses: It has been used to strengthen contractions in childbirth since the 16th century.  It is rarely used in its crude state today, but is split into component alkaloids, such as ergometrine (a uterine stimulant) and ergotamine (a vasoconstrictor). Ergot is an irreplaceable raw material for many important medicines.  Nowadays it is obtained by artificial cultivation on rye and also by cultivation of the mycelia in fermentation vats.

              A number of important medical discoveries have come from the study of ergot fungus and ergotism. In 1935 the alkaloid ergonovine was isolated from ergot. Since it causes strong muscular contractions, it has been used to induce labor and to control hemmorrhaging. The alkaloid ergotamine has been used extensively to relieve migraine headaches through the constriction of blood vessels. Thousands of pounds of ergot sclerotia are harvested each year from midwestern rye farms, and are used for various prescription drugs. In 1943 chemist Albert Hofmann was studying ergot fungus, whose nuclei contain lysergic acid. When he added diethylamide he produced lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. While working on this new compound, Hoffman discovered that its strong hallucinogenic effects were similar to that of natural lysergic acid alkaloids in the seeds of "ololiuqui," morning glories used by the Aztecs in their religious ceremonies.

 Toxicity: Ergot poisoning can manifest itself as a “burning epidemic” (Ergotismus gangraenosus) which results in a restricted circulation in the limbs with severe burning pains (holy fire).  The limbs subsequently turn black and drop off from lack of blood. Alternatively, poisoning can affect the nervous system, of which the symptoms are “cramp epidemic” (Ergotismus convulsivus) accompanied by itching (itching sickness), thirst and ravenous hunger, cramp in the flexor muscles and finally death.

Dictionary of Healing Plants
, Dr. Hans-Peter Dorfler and Prof. Gerhard Roselt, Blanford Press, 1989; ISBN: 0-7137-1852-8
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs
, Edited by Sarah Bunney, Chancellor Press, 1992; ISBN: 1-85152-135-6
Medicinal Plants
, Hans Fluck, W. Foulsham & Co., 1988; ISBN: 0-572-00996-8

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